The North Atlantic Alliance had, by the 1970s, changed significantly from what it had begun as in 1949, but it still remained an important part of international power politics. The curious combination of historical experience, liberal political institutions, and varying but compatible combinations of capitalism, socialism, and the welfare state that characterize western Europe, Canada, and the United States provided a vague sort of entente—even though many rejected the proposition that Russia and world communism posed a military threat.
In Asia the situation was far different. Although American leaders tended to believe, at least until the late 1960s, that the People's Republic of China took instructions from Moscow, U.S. policy still had to react to the reality of increasing Chinese power. Fears of another confrontation with China such as had occurred during the Korean War directed American efforts toward alliances that would guarantee that only Asians would confront Asians. Supporters and opponents both likened such policies to that of the Roman Empire, which relied upon mercenaries to guard its frontiers. American troops remained in South Korea, but a massive military aid program made the Republic of Korea forces the first line of defense. The Japanese had proven surprisingly reluctant to rearm themselves, and the United States retained military bases in Japan.
The Southeast Asia Treaty Organization of 1954 (SEATO) represented an attempt by the United States to stabilize the political situation in that area by bringing Britain, France, Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, Pakistan, the Philippines, and the United States together after the collapse of French rule in Indochina. With Malaysia, the Philippines, and the nations of Indochina all struggling against communist-led guerrillas, America's alliance diplomacy sought to bolster the existing governments with military and economic aid. Although such aid helped maintain the status quo in Malaysia and the Philippines, the situation in Vietnam seemed to leave the United States no choice between direct military intervention and a communist victory. Working on the assumption that the entire alliance structure in Southeast Asia would collapse one country at a time—like "dominoes"—if Indochina came under communist domination, the United States guaranteed that very result by intervening unsuccessfully. Although the Southeast Asia Treaty remained in force, by the mid-1970s it had lost its effectiveness. Moreover, American requests to the SEATO and NATO nations for military or diplomatic support in Vietnam had met with even less success than during the Korean War. Clearly western Europe saw no connection between their security and the spread of communism in Asia, particularly since they no longer had colonies to protect.
By 1976 the American system of alliances so painstakingly constructed after World War II lay in disarray. Arab nationalism, focused on the problems of the Palestinian refugees and the existence of the state of Israel, had effectively destroyed the Middle East treaty. Although the ANZUS Pact remained, the defeat of American efforts in Vietnam and the rise of the People's Republic of China brought about American recognition of the communist Chinese government and a scramble by nations from Australia to Japan to establish friendly relations with the Chinese. Latin America, once so obediently pro–United States in international affairs outside the hemisphere, now shifted to an increasingly anti–United States position as both the political left and right vied for public support. Outside of NATO, America's most entangling alliances were with the kinds of governments that the United States had condemned during World War II. Totalitarian regimes in Nationalist China, South Korea, Spain, and Greece all offered bases and staunch anticommunism in return for American economic and military aid. The key alliance, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, still functioned, but the integration of Britain into Europe, the development of détente between the Soviet Union and the United States, the rise to prominence in many western European countries of seemingly moderate and democratic communist parties, and the reestablishment of the West German army as the most powerful in Europe outside the Soviet Union promised to force major alterations in the North Atlantic alliance as well.
On paper the Cold War alliance system appeared to be a radical departure from the early American proscription against entangling alliances. Actually those alliances had never "entangled" the United States. Rather, such agreements, whether explicit or implicit, had supposedly served American interests. George Washington might have disputed the argument that America's national interest demanded the worldwide containment of communism, but he would not have rejected on principle a system of alliances as the best way to achieve that goal. Like most American presidents, he was at home in the world of alliance diplomacy and power politics.
America's feeling of comfort with its post–World War II alliance system allowed that structure to survive the demise of its putative rationale—the Cold War. But the Cold War had only been the front man, so to speak, for a deeper, more fundamental motive. Because the Western alliance system was so dependent on U.S. economic and military strength, it served as a vehicle for a unilateral globalism that allowed America to extend its hegemony—its influence and power— throughout the world. But because that globalism was largely on American terms, it did not break the traditional rule against "entangling" alliances.
When the Soviet Union disintegrated in the early 1990s and NATO lost its enemy, the United States led the movement to preserve and expand the NATO Alliance. The western Europeans, their historical memories sharply focused on recent history, sought to prevent another German problem by perpetuating Franco-German collaboration (entanglement?). But for U.S. policymakers NATO expansion offered an opportunity to extend their nation's influence by fostering "democracy," both political and economic. Expanding the free marketplace for commerce and ideas replaced the "containment" of communism and the Soviet Union as the justification for retaining and expanding the NATO alliance and its extensive infrastructure. This was no new idea—it had been a basic element in the rhetoric of Ronald Reagan and his administration during the 1980s. But once the Soviet threat disappeared, a debate ensued over whether or not the United States should continue to play the same extensive leadership role it had assumed during the Cold War. Was NATO even needed?
The administration of William Jefferson Clinton, fearful of losing its leverage in Europe, effectively ended the debate when it supported NATO expansion and then sent American military forces to the former Yugoslavia in an attempt to help end the bloodletting that had broken out along ethnic and religious lines. Democratic Party rhetoric may have referred more to political democracy than to the free market, but that was a matter of emphasis, not design. The epithet "isolationist" came to be applied to those who advocated anything but global involvement on American terms—not a new use of the term, but one that demonstrated the persistence of the desire, and ability, of the United States to follow a unilateral, my-way-or-the-highway style in foreign policy. By the beginning of the twenty-first century, the Republican administration of George W. Bush had confirmed U.S. involvement in the southern Balkans and expanded the American commitment in Macedonia.
American policymakers managed to square the circle, making a holy pretense of noninvolvement in the world while trying to shape that world in their own interests. Convinced that their nation offered a novus ordo seclorum —a new and better world order—they used alliances, coalitions, and ententes to extend the nation's reach. In 1776 that reach was limited by the practicalities of distance, wealth, and population. Two hundred twenty-five years later, those practicalities had disappeared, but the reach had not.